A reflection from the 4.13.19 event Seattle Reads: 2019 featuring Thi Bui.
I arrive at the downtown Seattle public library with my Viet gfs, Hong and Thao (sisters) with Thao’s baby Youna in tow. We catch Thanh on the way in and Trang is still on her way. We are all excited to be supporting a female Vietnamese author and illustrator, and of course to get our books signed (I had yet to purchase mine). We walk into the auditorium and it is entirely full, which is my first surprise because we arrived at least 20 minutes early. My second surprise was the audience comprised mainly of older white people. Don’t get me wrong, it is fantastic that there is this type of support for a Viet author but what I envisioned, before coming to this event, was a sea of Viet folks all banding together to show how much they appreciate Thi’s work. I mean, how many Viet authors can we actually celebrate out there? I think this is a huge fantasy of mine when I showcase my own work. It is an expectation I suppose that my own people will be there to root me on. Perhaps it is a level of acceptance within the Viet community that I yearn for? I do not speak Viet fluently but understand most of it, and grew up in a very white Canadian neighbourhood. It was not until I moved to Seattle in 2008 that I became involved with Vietnamese organizations. Admittedly, I was not initially welcome with open arms with a particular set of people, which is just sad entirely on all fronts. Of course, you learn and you move on, maybe forgive a little, but I suppose some PTSD sets in. Basically, I was hoping to see more of my Viet sisters in the crowd, and because I didn’t I was ultimately disappointed with the lack of community support by local Viets. Was this really the best we could do?
Anyhow, back to the pertinent, soul-searching, poignant event, which was a live interview with Thi Bui, moderated by Julie Pham (also an author), along with the world premiere live reading of The Best We Could Do directed by Kathy Hsieh, adapted by Susan Lieu, and played by: Hing Lam, Susan Lieu, Henry Vu, Grace Ai Nguyen, and Tammy Nguyen.
Before the program began, I perused the table of books for purchase by about a handful of Viet authors. I kind of wanted to buy them all but I can only read so much on the Vietnam war. I bought the book of the evening (okay, I admit I haven’t read it yet but so what, who cares) and a children’s book Thi illustrated entitled A Different Pond.
During the live Q&A, I was caught by a couple of answers by Thi. The first one was the fact that she had multiple offers to create a film for her book. She declined all of them because she was adamant that the story not be portrayed incorrectly nor, I assume, directed/produced by non-Vietnamese people. Essentially, she didn’t sell out, which speaks volumes to the control of her own work. My gf Trang mentioned that Crazy, Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan had similar experiences where Hollywood wanted to cast a white Rachel Chu. I mean I am not shocked but get the eff out of here Hollywood with your modern “yellow facing”. Btw I did vlog on this like 3.5 yrs ago, which can be seen here.
So there is another issue to the history of the diaspora of our boat people, which is we need more Vietnamese filmmakers to properly portray Vietnamese stories.
The second item that stuck with me was during one of Thi’s answers she mentions that there are no happy endings. Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact question that was asked by Julie but I think it was in regards to all of the generations involved in her book and how their stories were unfolded. Is this sentiment entirely true? I ponder Thi’s words for the rest of the event and reflect on my mother’s death anniversary, which is this very day. She died very suddenly via brain aneurysm 5 years ago. Within 24 hrs of arriving at the hospital, there was no coming back from the incredible damage to her brain, and we took her off life support. The shock to the system is hard to forget. The swiftness to which your rock can be pulled out from under you is terrifying and I do not scare easily. Thi’s pessimistic, cup half empty view is difficult to internalize but I do think in essence it holds true to those who have been directly and indirectly affected by the Vietnam War. I suppose another perspective is that even though life can be good overall there is usually at least one thing that makes it bitter. I am naturally a jubilant person, quite cup half full but the thorn in my side, the ache that will never fade is the death of my mother. Directly from that tragic moment, the domino effect of dysfunctional family dynamics creates an even plumper unhappy ending.
The live reading was the cherry on top, especially for Thi who was experiencing it for the first time along with the audience. Let’s just say she needed some tissues. Susan Lieu’s adaptation of the book had each actor jump in one after the other in a myriad of dialogue and family drama. So Viet, so reminiscent, so perfect.
As I end this blog post, I ask why are events that celebrate female, Vietnamese writers so important? It is because they are rare gems that need to be unearthed for all to see and experience. And, we need to continue to foster and support them with all our might so that we can indeed do the best we can do.